Caixin
Apr 02, 2019 02:06 PM

China’s Renewed Embrace of Coal Power Bucks Global Trend

The Datang Taiyuan No. 2 Thermal Power Plant in Taiyuan, North China’s Shanxi province, in October 2017. Photo: IC
The Datang Taiyuan No. 2 Thermal Power Plant in Taiyuan, North China’s Shanxi province, in October 2017. Photo: IC

The number of coal-fired power plants in development globally decreased for the third consecutive year in 2018 — but not in China, a new report has found.

The report, by environmental nongovernmental organizations Global Energy Monitor, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, found a 20% drop in newly completed coal-fired plants around the world last year and a 53% drop over three years, as well as a 39% decrease in construction starts on such projects.

But the amount of coal power capacity under construction increased 12% in 2018 from the year before, an increase the researchers said was due primarily to China, after examining satellite photos that revealed the nation had “quietly resumed” construction of a number of sites previously reported to have been suspended by central government rules.

Additionally, the China Electricity Council (CEC) in March proposed increasing China’s coal power cap to 1,300 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, up 290 GW on current levels.

“While this would not necessarily breach China’s pledges under the Paris Agreement, another coal power construction spree would be near impossible to reconcile with emission reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of global warming,” Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst at the Greenpeace Global Air Pollution Unit, said in an accompanying press statement.

The report, titled “Boom and Bust 2019,” analyzed data from a database compiled by Global Energy Monitor that identifies, maps, describes and categorizes all coal-fired generating units around the world. Burning coal is one of the major sources of carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver behind global warming.

In March 2016, China’s Ministry of Environment and Ecology tightened the approvals process for new coal-fired plants in order to slow the pace of growth. Seven months later the environment ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission issued joint guidelines that said a planned 150 GW worth of coal-fired plants would be canceled or suspended.

According to the report, China’s government had suspended 170 GW of coal-fired plant projects by 2017 and green-lit a record low of 5 GW of new coal capacity for construction in 2018. But satellite imagery showed that development continued at nearly half of these projects: about 50 GW of projects that had already begun construction, and another 28 GW which were in pre-construction stages.

Meanwhile the March proposal from the CEC, which represents China’s power sector, indicates the industry group is pushing for a huge expansion of coal in China, and would allow for “hundreds of new coal plants to be added, including plants that had been suspended under central government restrictions,” the report said.

Many have blamed China’s efforts to stimulate a slowing economy for the nation’s backslide on years of progress since coal consumption peaked in 2013. While China’s coal consumption rose for a second consecutive year in 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, coal only accounted for 59% of the country’s energy consumption — the first time it had fallen below 60%, and down from 64% in 2015.

The report also pointed out that China finances more than half of the world’s global coal power capacity, including domestic plants and plants outside its borders. Abroad, this is primarily achieved through state-owned enterprises. State-owned financial agencies in China, Japan, and South Korea were found to be the largest sources of funding for coal plants outside their borders.

The amount of coal power capacity in pre-construction stages declined for the third consecutive year, including in China and India, which have the largest capacity globally. Despite the apparent reversal of construction suspensions, China’s planned new coal capacity has fallen a whopping 86% since the end of 2015. India’s has dropped 83%.

However, the “Boom and Bust 2019” report warns that “global climate goals cannot be met without a full halt in new coal plants and a rapid retirement of operating coal plants.”

Contact reporter Ren Qiuyu (qiuyuren@caixin.com)

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